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Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Part II

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | July 21, 2012

“Lee emerges as the whole person because his prewar, war and post war career are totally free of contradictions: he acted like the same man under all circumstances.”
Clifford Dowdey

Last week I wrote about Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Part I with excerpts from H.W. Crocker III’s book by that title. Lee was called “The Grey Fox” by the blue-coated hounds of the north who, under General Ulysses S. Grant, tried for three years to stop him.  But, amazingly, though often cornered and always outnumbered, Lee would clench his jaw and counterattack. 

Today, we will examine further this incredible leader.  On more than one occasion his men shouted to him as he rode to the front of the battle, “Go back, General Lee! For God’s sake, go back.”  But in spite of their pleas their beloved general would ride to the front, unarmed but apparently preparing to charge the Federals (those people) and push them back himself. 

Lee responded, “If you promise to drive those people from our works, I will go back.”  The men rushed forward yelling their promise, and rushing to take on the enemy.  Just north of the Spotsylvania Court House a battle called the “Bloody Angle” raged all day until 10,000 Confederates and 18,000 Federals were lost as casualties. 

It is hard to estimate what the War Between the States cost Lee.  As Crocker says, “A successful soldier, he was not used to defeat.  Now he had lost his home, his career, and virtually all his worldly goods—including his carefully harbored savings and investments.  Worse, he had suffered the premature death of a daughter, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and countless colleagues and friends.”

Lee was … “A patriot who had devoted his life to the service of his country, who venerated George Washington, who was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and who had married Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter” who was now “…deprived of his citizenship and liable to be tried for treason.” 

And yet, “Lee was not defeated. Soon after the war’s end, he was increasingly regarded not merely as a military genius but as someone to be venerated by the South and the North, to be venerated, indeed, throughout the Western world as a great man.”  As Winston Churchill would later write, Lee was “One of the noblest Americans who ever lived, and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.”

Here are some of the leadership perspectives which he had:  Learn from your superiors; Leadership is legitimized by success under fire; Leadership requires moral responsibility; Do your own reconnaissance; A leader knows that men’s passions forge their fetters; A leader must be decisive, humble, hardworking, disciplined and a good subordinate.

We can go on: A leader orders hard work and enforces necessary discipline but doesn’t suffocate his subordinates’ initiative or spirit; A leader can distinguish between subordinates who make mistakes but have great potential (like Stonewall Jackson) and those who make mistakes and have no potential (and who should therefore be removed). 

Perhaps Lee’s most lasting influence, however, came after the war was over.  Crocker observes, “It has often been said that however great a commander Lee was in the field, his greatest service to his nation was his example after defeat. Douglas Southall Freeman, for one, illustrated how Lee’s ‘gospel of silence and goodwill, of patience and hard work’ helped bind the wounds of the nation.” 

After he became President of Washington College he modeled the philosophy which he told a young mother seeking his blessing for her infant son, “Teach him he must deny himself” because he knew “a leader’s job is to serve.” 

We would all do well to heed the words he once wrote to his son Custis, “I am opposed to the theory of doing wrong that good may come of it.  I hold to the belief that you must act right whatever the consequences.” 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu